The man of many cloths
At the Crested Butte Ski School, instructor Rick Barton is exchanging warm, comical banter with a fellow skier, “We really enjoy him because he sets the bar so low,” he jokes and elicits a big grin from the guy. There’s a sincere and compassionate tone in Rick’s voice, a joyous sense of humor, and an undeniable sparkle in his eyes that says he is happy with his world.
Barton set out west from Littleton, Colo. in 1967 heading to Gunnison because, he laughs, “All I knew was that Western State College had a ski area 30 miles north, one 30 miles east and one on the edge of town that you got college credit for taking ski lessons as a required P.E. class.”
So, he hunkered down, filling his student life with the usual four jobs to ski in paradise. “My first year, I got a job as a lift ticket checker, a ski patrol trainee, a dishwasher at the Ski Crest Lodge and dorm proctor at the Nordic Inn,” he says, remembering his non-stop schedule well and explaining that back in the day, the Nordic Inn had a dorm with bunk beds, more like a hostel. “My job was to come in and quiet everybody down and turn off the lights.”
“I’d wash dishes at Ski Crest until about midnight and fall into bed at the Nordic Inn, sleep, get up, check tickets, and repeat all weekend,” Barton says.
After his season of basic training for ski patrol at Crested Butte, Rick got a job with ski patrol at Cranor Hill ski area in Gunnison for the rest of that season. “It had night skiing and snowmaking,” he recalls of the tiny area that opened in 1962.
Rick then went to work for the Crested Butte Ski School. “Strobahaur hired me sight unseen as a ski instructor and later on he told me, ‘I would have never hired you if I knew how poorly you skied.’ By that time I had some success in my teaching so he didn’t fire me. He made me a supervisor eventually,” he chuckles. Changing it up a bit, Rick headed to the other ski resort 30 miles east to teach at Monarch for a couple of years, only to return to Crested Butte a few years later, where he’s now logged 40 years as a ski instructor. “I love it!” he confesses. “I’ve skied with pro athletes, NFL players, TV stars…” he says, humbled and a bit star struck.
As summer unfolded, Rick decided maybe a cowboy life was the summer ticket for him. “I ran away to Winter Park and I got a job on a ranch. I’m not a big city guy,” he admits. After a month, when he realized the job was all about driving a truck and moving rocks and riding horses wasn’t part of his ranch utopia dream, he walked into a U.S. Forest Service office in Winter Park and asked if they needed any help. “Which isn’t how it’s done because you normally have to go through all sorts of process and applications,” he muses and adds, “but on this particular day, they had two guys quit so the ranger looked incredulously at me and said, ‘Yes!’ So, my first day at work was July 3 and I had the Fourth off with pay and I thought, this is a great job!”
He worked building trails the first year, camping out on beaver ponds in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area for 10 days at a time. Opportunity smiled on him again when, in the middle of summer, one of the guys Rick was working with asked if he’d like to teach skiing at a little area called Idlewild, right across the road from the Winter Park ski area. He spent the next three winters there, just before the tiny resort went out of business.
In 1969, Rick landed a job with the Forest Service in the Gunnison National Forest. “The first day I went to work my boss Shammy Somrak told me to take a truck and go over the district to get acquainted with the area. I went up Schofield Pass, it was the end of May and I tried to get turned around at the snow plug and got stuck. I was too embarrassed to call on the radio so I started walking to Gothic until I found someone who would pull me out of the ditch. I figured no one would know but the guy turned out to be my boss’ neighbor, Ken Ophir. He could hardly wait to tell Shammy.”
A year later in 1970, while running a Christian coffeehouse on WSC campus where he played guitar and sang popular folk songs rewritten with his own gospel lyrics, he met his wife to be, Melva. “She came to some bible studies. I would put out free bibles, free coffee, and free donuts,” he smiles. The bait apparently worked and the couple married the following year and settled in Gunnison. The summer before his wedding, Rick was working in the Gunnison National Forest helping to run the camp grounds up Taylor Park and living in a ranger work station on Cottonwood Pass. He wound up employed for the Forest Service for 30 summers. “I worked in recreation and timber, with fire activity included, for 20 years, and the last 10 years I ran a fire engine out of Gunnison. I was an engine foreman. We’d go out and do patrolling and preparation, putting fire breaks in potentially dangerous areas,” he explains how cutting a 30-foot tree swath will help prevent a fire from spreading until the firefighters can get in and do their job.
“The past 13 summers I’ve worked for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Colorado State Forest Service as a firefighter, a line safety officer, a public information officer, and a strike team leader,” Rick says, listing some of his duties. “I am privileged to help train both Gunnison and Crested Butte firefighters each year in wildland fire safety.”
When the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded upon reentry, February 1, 2003, the BLM sent Rick’s team to find the pieces. It took literally thousands of people over several months to comb the Texas area. “They knew the path and where it exploded so they could figure out the debris path. My job was to direct hand crews as we went through the thickets of east Texas,” Rick sadly recalls. “Ultimately we recovered 40 percent of the shuttle.”
This past September, the BLM sent him to the Front Range to assist with the flood devastation. “We were in charge of opening up roads to help people get out.” Rick has served through several disasters across the United States—hurricanes, fires, floods and space shuttle recovery. “Where there’s a big incident, FEMA will call in the Forest Service because our incident management systems are so efficient,” he explains. In hurricane assignments, like Katrina, they were sent to walk door to door to talk to people, finding out what their needs were and then putting them in contact with the right entities, whether they needed food or a roof. “My job was to go out daily, go to all the homes that were destroyed, and give them information on their needs.”
Throughout his life, Rick has drawn on divine direction to lead him and those early WSC coffee house bible studies evolved into a church with Rick as its pastor. He served as the “tri-vocational” pastor until 1989 and then became minister at large for the church. He now has an outreach through Rick Barton Ministries (rickbartonministries.org) and he’s active in itinerant evangelistic preaching, church planting in small nearby communities, campground chapels, college outreaches, ski area outreaches and forest fire chapel services.
“I feel the Lord has assigned me to this valley to show his love and share his good news and, I love the people. You don’t do it because you’re making a ton of money,” he laughs. “You do it because you love the people, you love who you work with, and of course you love the mountains.”
Being on the mountain as a ski instructor for 40 years apparently hasn’t dampened Rick’s spirit and, in fact, his broad grin is like a road map with lots of detours for laughing, skiing, and working in the great outdoors—all leading to a life well lived with humble gratitude. “I love the drama of the mountains, looking around and seeing God’s creation. Yesterday, by accident, I was the first person on the Silver Queen. I got on top of the mountain and I was the only person, besides ski patrol. I skied from the top of the Queen to the bottom of East River and I looked around and said, ‘God, how fortunate I am!’ …I have so much to be thankful for.”